Ironman training for time-crunched triathletes

Over the past many years, I have been training athletes seeking to race their first Ironman distance triathlon, as well as athletes aiming at racing faster at that distance.

Many of them had challenging schedules: business executives traveling the world on a regular basis, entrepreneurs with irregular, demanding schedules, surgeons and ER doctors with unique schedule specificities; not to mention children to take to soccer practices, swim meets, university visits, and other family activities taking place on weekends and throughout the week.

Devoting 15 to 18 hours a week, or more, on a regular and consistent basis to train across 3 disciplines during the months leading to an Ironman distance race proved to be somewhat impossible for these time-crunched ironman athletes. Yet, they succeeded in achieving their goals.

In this paper, I will highlight what made the athlete/coach approach and relationship successful, along with some lessons learned. Though some of these considerations would apply to any athletes, they become even more important, and actually critical when it comes to athletes training for ironman distance races, where the training volume and workload can be quite significant and in direct conflict with the athlete’s available time for training.

<!--[Spend time as a coach to understand your athlete’s lifestyle

Athletes may tend to underestimate their career and family constrains.  If this is the case, they will quickly find themselves with too many things on their plates, training will rapidly become a burden, having fun will become an unknown concept, training-related stress will increase, and they will drop out.


Our role as coaches is to get very familiar with our time-crunched athletes’ professional schedules and constrains, family constrains, kids’ activities, etc. The more we know about their “lifestyle”, the more effective our training program will be.


<!--Set up realistic expectations

Fairly recently I coached an athlete who was new to the sport of triathlon, and asked me to coach him so that he could finish an Ironman race during his 1st season.  Though I would typically decline to do such a thing, in this particular situation I accepted it, but developed and maintained realistic expectations throughout the season.


Time-crunched athletes may not be able to dedicate what would typically be seen as an ideal number of weekly training hours during the last 3 to 4 months leading to an Ironman race. Time limitations may draw a line between finishing a race in good conditions vs. racing a race.


We, as coaches, should evaluate each situation in detail, and develop clear and realistic expectations, and discuss them with our athletes, making sure that the athlete and coach are on the same page.


<!-Become your athletes’ “personal assistant”

I know my athletes’ schedules as executives, entrepreneurs, dads/moms almost as well as mine. I know when they are travelling, to what cities, whether they will have enough time to train at home before leaving to the airport, or after getting back home, I know if they can use a pool when travelling, I know how much they can train per day when travelling, I know when they have annual budget meetings that will shut down their entire week, I know when as teachers they have “back-to-school” meetings in the evenings, I know when as doctors they will be on calls or working night shifts, etc.


Why would you ask me? Because I need to identify the optimum weekly training plan and detailed workouts that will be fully aligned with their individual, unique, busy schedules. That’s as simple as that.


<!-Develop a 3-month plan

In addition to the overall annual training plan that includes the various training phases and races, it is critical to develop a more short/mid-term training plan, typically 3 months, that will include the major constrains that your athletes are already aware of.


That should include business trips, family weekends, vacations, family reunions, etc. All events that will impact their training plans. Per instance, try to take advantage of an heavy traveling week as a recovery week. If as their coach, I know this several weeks or couple of months in advance, I can then easily structure a more effective and impactful mid-term training plan.


<!-Be prepared to be very reactive

Schedules of time-crunched people change all the time, sometimes at the last minute. Scheduling workouts 1 week at a time only, may not always be sufficient. Meetings get rescheduled, 1-hour meetings turn into 3-hour meetings, kids get sick, etc.

Be prepared to re-adjust workouts within less than 8 hours. Time is the essence. Be flexible and ready to change, adjust, re-sequence, re-prioritize workouts on the spot, while keeping the 3-month plan and annual objectives in mind.


<Get to know your athletes on a personal level

Type-A athletes will tend to minimize or hide their stress and fatigue levels. Monitor them carefully. Review their workout data in detail. Listen to their feedback and ask them to share detailed post workout comments with you. Watch for signs of demotivation and adjust accordingly.


One athlete once wrote the following post workout comment: “workout not done. Don’t ask me why!”  I knew he was stressed out and I did not ask why he had not completed his workout… J

<!--“working out” vs. “training”

Athletes, especially time-crunched ironman athletes, need to understand that there is a critical distinction between “exercising/working out” and “training”. Because their time will be limited, each workout must have a very well defined objective and purpose. A 90-minute bike workout with Functional Threshold Power intervals is not the same as just enjoying a 2-hour bike ride on a sunny Saturday afternoon. They must understand this.


As training time will be somewhat / sometimes constrained, specificity and consistency will become very critical in order to maximize the available training time and get the most value out of each workout.


<!--Intensity vs. Volume

This topic would require a dedicated paper by itself, but let’s briefly cover it.


Time-crunched ironman athletes also bring some unique benefits: increased recovery time! These athletes have more recovery time than someone able to train 15 to 20 hours a week. They may not be able to train 6 days/week. They may not be able to have double-workout days. At least, not on a regular basis. The result is more recovery time.


Many studies have showed that training at higher intensities, such as Vo2Max, are actually increasing performance at all metabolic levels below it.


So, here is the unique proposition available to time-crunched ironman athletes:

Less volume

Higher ratio of high/higher intensity workouts

Same overall required training workload: less volume x higher intensity

Increased recovery time


This is not to say that some long workouts, performed at targeted race-pace/intensity level will not be required and beneficial, but that higher volume component of ironman training can be reduced, without negatively impacting the level of readiness of the time-crunched ironman athlete.


In conclusion, I would emphasize the following 3 key take-aways:

Get to know your athletes’ lifestyle and schedule. Be a coach and "personal assistant".


Be very reactive to the athlete’s ever-changing schedule; more than a day to react, and the opportunity to effectively re-organize and re-balance a given training week is gone.


Balance volume vs. intensity vs. recovery in a time-crunched environment and turn the athlete’s schedule constrains into benefits.

Eric G.